The Olympics: Religious Glory to National Pride

By Alec Degnats

Recently the British newspaper The Telegraph reported on a growing scandal involving the Olympics and religion. At the 2012 games (as with every Olympics) a “faith badge” was designed and given to religious leaders of different faiths as a means of official credentials. This year though the London Olympic committee decided to remove all religious symbols from the badges in a move to be politically correct. This exclusion of religious symbols from the “faith badge” has become a bit satirical as religious leaders have become outraged over the committee’s decision. The Olympic committee contends that “not all religious believers would feel “comfortable” wearing symbols of other faiths.”[1] which ultimately led them to choose a generic non-affiliated design  (the word faith over the globe next to the London Olympic and Para-Olympic symbols). London’s need to be “politically correct” is odd considering how religion is embedded within the ancient and modern Olympic games.

In the 8th century B.C.E the Olympics were established in Greece under the orders of the Oracle of Delphi to “prevent eternal wars and the plague.”[2] Starting with just a single race the Olympics marked a time where the Greek states were to come together, putting their swords and shields aside to worship the Gods. Primarily a tribute to Zeus, the Olympic games would take place at Olympia (the site of the main cult of Zeus). Over time the Olympics grew to include a variety of events including: boxing, wrestling, chariot races, and the penathelon[3] 

Throughout time however the Olympics became a multipurpose event encompassing more than peace and glory for the Gods. While glorifying and worshiping Zeus was always at the forefront, the games presented a multitude of other benefits for the Greek City States. Victors at the games brought great honor, glory, and riches upon themselves and their city-state. Beyond this, the Games also served as the perfect vehicle to train and mold men for military service. Virgin women also played a role in the games, one of the few times women played a role in early Greek politics and social life. The Virgins assisted in running the games but also utilized the time to find a fit male to be their husband and mate.[4] 

So, how does religion connect to the modern Olympic games?  The modern games are supposed to mix the values of the ancient games with modern ideals. According to the Olympic oath, modern athletes are competing to bring honor and glory to sportsmanship, sport, and their country.[5] And while these values sound different than what they used to, it is easy to find of the ancient values within.

In the modern games it is said that the athletes play for the glory of the country, the same way that the Ancient Olympians played for the glory of their city-state. Also during the games countries put aside their differences and competed between one another, the same way the Greek city-states put down their arms during the ancient games. Now some of us may be calling foul that politics is deeply embedded in the modern games and sometimes conflict between countries overshadows the Olympic spirit (Cold war games with Russia and the US). Politics however also played a role in the ancient games, when city-states would occasionally deny opposing athletes safe passage through their borders or they would detain them to stop them from competing.[6] 

Beyond this, the fact that we have an official “faith pin” and committee shows that religion is a deep part of our culture and of the games. All athletes play for their country, but I think it is safe to say that many athletes also play to glorify and honor their God(s). Obviously any nation ruled through religious law or a national religion will be playing to glorify their God(s).

It is not uncommon to see athletes, American and otherwise, in prayer before or after their sport; thanking God for their successful play. We see this is American non-Olympic sports as well: baseball players thank God as they touch home plate, football players kneel in contemplation and in celebration of God’s guidance. At award ceremonies across American sports–MVP, scoring title, national championship or even a number retirement you will hear God glorified and thanked first and normally again last (especially the past few years since Tebow erupted onto the scene). So for these Olympic games I challenge all of us to follow how many times an Olympic athlete thanks a deity in his victory/acceptance speech or interview. 

The controversy over the “faith pin” shows a misguided attempt to separate religion from the Olympic games. The games were re-established to celebrate a coming together and exchanging of cultural heritage and beliefs. Religion is one of our greatest culture assets  and by removing the religious symbols from the faith pin under the guise of “political correctness” we do a great disservice to bridging the gap between our religious differences.  As it was said in the Telegraph article, “By the time any possibility of offense has been addressed then any meaning has been washed away as well”.[7] In our haste to be politically correct we are removing any meaning that the pin could have represented or served.  Removing religious symbols from the faith pin separates religion from the cultures and countries it represents and is derived from. Beyond this, we are removing a spark—a conversation starter—that could open dialogue on differences that are too often at the core of some of the world’s bloodiest battles and largest divisions between nations, groups and cultures. 

Regardless of the Olympic committee’s refusal to portray religious symbols on the official “faith pins,” religion is alive and well in the 2012 games.  Hundreds of religious leaders are providing religious services and guidance for the athletes, judges, and spectators throughout the duration of the games. Islamic athletes are striving to give their best performance during this time of Ramadan as well as struggling with how to marry their religious beliefs with glorifying their nation and faith—something that will be difficult to do while fasting. 

No matter where we look, religion is deeply embedded in our culture, identity, and in turn, the Olympic Games. From the Ancient Greeks glorifying Zeus, to modern athletes showcasing their talents to bring glory to their faith or nation, we should embrace the message of the Olympics to spread friendship, camaraderie, and peace. 

In 1935, the founder of the modern Olympic Games, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, wrote of the modern games, “The first essential characteristic of the modern Olympics is that, like the Olympics of ancient Greece, they constitute a religion.[8] For de Coubertin, religious ritual, imagery, ceremony, and meaning is the essential element of his Olympic vision. 

Religion is as much a part of the Olympics as the hundred meter dash or wrestling and when we treat it as something separate; we are doing a great disservice to the Games. We should utilize the Olympic Games and their message to cultivate awareness and friendship between cultures, nations, and faiths. I wish they had included religious symbols on the faith badge because it would have given us an opportunity to begin conversations between differing faiths—a place to start to gain a greater understanding.  In the end I wish they had created a more inclusive pin that would have been a beacon for understanding and hope between religions, while also paying homage and respect to the modern and ancient games.

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Alec Degnats is a graduate of the University of North Florida where he earned Bachelor’s degrees in Music performance and Philosophy. His philosophical interests include those in aesthetics, ethics, language, and music. Recently responsible for assisting in the publication of a jazz drumming textbook, Alec hopes to continue to publish both academic and literary works, while continuing to teach and pursue music. Toward these ends, Alec has applied to PHD programs in philosophy. Vist Alec at: http://aleccdegnats.blogspot.com/



[1]  Malnik, Edward. “Religious symbols banned from London Olympics Faith Badge.” The Telegraph, May 06, 2012.   http://www.telegraph.co.uk/sport/olympics/london-2012/9248071/Religious-symbols-banned-from-London-Olympics-faith-badge.html[2]  Video on Olympic website Olympicgames.org, “Ancient Olympic Games.” Accessed July 25, 2012.   http://www.olympic.org/ancient-olympic-games3]  Instone, Dr. Stephani. bbc history, “The Olympics: Ancient vs Modern.” Accessed July 25, 2012.               http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ancient/greeks/greek_olympics_01.shtml[4]  Ibid  [5]  Olympic Museum , “The Olympic Oath.” Accessed July 25, 2012. http://olympic-museum.de/oath/theoath.htm. 6]  Instone, The Olympics: Ancient vs Modern. [7]  Malnik, 2012 [8]  Hirst, Michael. Bbc News UK, “London 2012: How do the Olympics handle religion?.” Last modified March 30, 2012.   Accessed July 25, 2012. http://olympic-museum.de/oath/theoath.htm.

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